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Bike inspection, made easy: the case for standardised risk assessment

28 February 2023

Contrary to popular belief, it has been 50 years since the first carbon bike was made in 1971, and despite a slow start this 'wonder material' has grown in popularity ever since. What was once reserved for the privileged few is now far more affordable and accessible - even with the range of complexities brought about because of COVID (e.g., supply shortages and increased distribution costs). When carbon fibre is made well, it has a strength-to-weight ratio superior to most metals and - theoretically - can last decades if cared for and used for its intended purpose. Simply put, it is a revolutionary material that deserves credit - and that will be around for decades to come.

When poorly crafted or manufactured, however, this strong material becomes susceptible to a range of issues. Gaps between the plies of reinforcement, within a ‘bondline’ or an encapsulated area (known as ‘voids’) can significantly weaken the structure. Voids can ultimately lead to cracking which can then lead to failure, but they exist beneath the paintwork - invisible to the naked eye as seen in Figure 1. To effectively identify voids requires the use of NDT inspection methods, such as ultrasound, by practitioners who have undergone expert training to ensure they know what to look for and are able to interpret the data effectively.

Image: Bridging voids typically develop during manufacturing. They may be large, cannot be detected on surface or interior via visual methods and may not be detected via a tap test.

Similarly, ‘impact damage’ (damage resulting from blunt force) isn’t always easy to identify and even where it can be seen by the naked eye, the true extent of damage may be unknown and unappreciated. As Figure 2 illustrates, it is often best to err on the side of caution. Location and size are just two of approximately 15 factors that Cycle Inspect have identified that contribute to damage risk. The truth is, there is little standardisation of how bicycles are assessed for manufacturing defects or damage, and carbon fibre is one material you don’t want to gamble on.

Image: internal vs external view of damage to carbon tube, illustrating how little can be understood by visual inspection of the exterior surface.

Shortages in bike stock are driving cyclists (new and experienced) to the used/pre-owned bike market in hordes, but the truth is that used carbon bikes may be - to a large extent – a ticking time bomb. Buyers have little to no service history available to them, have no concept of how hard it has been ridden, are beholden to the the seller’s honesty as to whether a bike has been involved in any crashes; and have only a basic understanding of the market value based on broad definitions of bike depreciation. Additionally, there is usually limited (if any) transfer of warranty to a secondary owner, placing a secondary purchaser at substantial financial and safety risk. In summary, the seller is holding all the chips, and the buyer is making decisions based largely on blind faith alone. The risk for cyclists who buy any secondhand bikes is greater than that of buying new ones because there's currently no easy and accessible way to determine if they are safe or not.

"Because no one tracks how often carbon-fiber bike components fail, there’s no way to determine how widespread the problem has become" - Roman F. Beck

To be fair, not all ‘damage’ is serious and some manufacturing ‘defects’ may not be defects at all - but it is the uncertainty over what is/is not normal or safe that cyclists deserve more clarity around. The industry also deserves an independent, objective source of intelligence to help translate inspection data to safety risk - which is where Cycle Inspect comes in. CI are independent (not aligned with specific manufacturers, retailers or repairers) and exist purely to serve cyclists, the bicycle retail industry and the bicycle mechanic trade by offering new insights and streamlining the inspection process to provide safety and certainty for all.

CI aim to increase awareness of the importance of preventative (following accident/incident) and precautionary (pre-emptive/part of general service) inspections so that riders can make informed decisions about what to ride, buy, sell or insure.




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